SALIDA, CO (KRQE) – “It’s a great calling in life, it is a dream,” Kent Maxwell said.
That is how Kent describes the life of a wild land firefighter and he should know.
Maxwell fought fires for decades before starting the Colorado Firecamp near Salida, Colo., 10 years ago. The camp offers training for new and experienced firefighters.
A typical class consists of 20 men and women from across the country. They come from as far away as Connecticut and Michigan.
The entry-level class for wild land firefighters is split between the study of fire behavior and basic firefighting techniques. Throughout the training there is a constant focus on safety.
“I better never ever get audited because you got hurt and had to pull your fire shelter, because you never should have been in that position,” trainer Chris Bainbridge barks at a class of new recruits.
Bainbridge, a Captain with the Salida Fire Department, uses the Yarnell fire in Arizona as an example. During that fire last summer, a crew of 19 Hot Shots was killed when the fire changed direction and they were caught outside their designated safety zone.
“There had to be somebody on that crew of 19 that went, ‘this isn’t right’ and maybe their cohesion was so tight that nobody said anything, and that’s what we try to teach in this class is ‘if you see something, say something,’ ” Bainbridge said.
Another lesson Bainbridge drives home is when not to fight a fire.
“When a fire takes off, we’re dealing with a crowning fire, running tree top to tree top, 100 to 300 foot flame lengths, a fire that’s throwing embers a quarter to a mile ahead of itself starting new fires,” Bainbridge said.
These are the times when he wants his students to be in a designated safety zone, waiting for conditions to improve.
When they are done with the four-day course that includes classroom work and hands-on experience, most of the students will try to find work with a hand crew. A hand crew is a group that spends long days digging lines around a wildfire, burning out fuels to keep the fire from spreading.
It is a dangerous, physically demanding job that sometimes lasts for days, miles from the nearest town. Part of the reward is financial. Wild land firefighters can earn more than $2,000 a week. But Maxwell will tell you that the most attractive part of the job is not financial.
“(It’s) the teamwork, camaraderie, the adrenaline, and excitement that a lot of kids really like … the idea that you can do something where people really appreciate what you do. Not every job in life has that opportunity,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell’s Colorado Firecamp is offering a start in that career for dozens of trainees every year.
“I love what I do,” said Maxwell. “The part that fire camp plays in helping people chase that dream, balanced by the knowledge that it can go seriously, seriously wrong. I want them to leave this with the belief that someday they’re going to have the gray hairs that I have, and that they’re going to look back on a long career as a wild land firefighter.”